Although it’s a natural phase of a woman’s life, menopause is often accompanied by a host of troublesome symptoms. Luckily, many can be managed with herbal medicines.
What are the symptoms of menopause?
Most women experience menopause in their late 40s or early 50s, signalling the end of their fertile years. For some this transition occurs suddenly, while for others changes to the menstrual cycle occur gradually (often over several years) and typically involve changes in the length of the cycle, the duration of the period and/or the volume of the menstrual flow. During menopause and the time leading up to it (referred to as perimenopause), many women experience physical and/or emotional symptoms, which may include:
- Hot flushes (sometime referred to as hot flashes)
- Night sweats
- Mild anxiety, irritability, tension and other mood problems
- Hair loss, sometimes accompanied by increased facial hair
- Weight problems
- Concentration and memory problems
- Lowered libido
- Decreased bladder tone (sometimes resulting in incontinence)
- Vaginal dryness (also known as vaginal atrophy)
- Dry skin and increased tendency to develop wrinkles
- Musculoskeletal aches and pains
Additionally, in the years following menopause, women become increasingly likely to develop heart problems and osteoporosis.
What causes menopause?
Women are born with a finite number of eggs, which are stored in the ovaries until being released at the rate of approximately one per month to enable conception to occur. Menopause occurs when the supply of eggs from the ovaries runs out, and signals both the end of menstruation and the end of the fertile years of a woman’s life. This milestone is accompanied by steep declines in the ovaries’ production of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, which may cause a relative excess of the male hormones (androgens) that are naturally present in women as well as men. These hormonal fluctuations are responsible for the various menopausal symptoms that individual women experience. For example, an increased dominance of androgens may contribute to menopausal hair loss, while reduced oestrogen levels lead to reduced levels of moisture in the skin and decreased lubrication of the vagina. Women’s increased risks of heart problems and osteoporosis after menopause are also due to the decline in oestrogen, which exerts a protective effect against these conditions during her younger years. From the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), many symptoms of menopause can be attributed to falling levels of Jing, a type of energy that’s stored in the Kidney organ-meridian system and helps regulate the opposing forces of Yin (feminine energy) and Yang (masculine energy). Jing is progressively depleted from mid-life onwards, especially in women who have experienced multiple pregnancies or been exposed to chronic illness, stress or overwork. As a result, declining levels of the feminine Yin and to a lesser extent the masculine Yang are common during menopause, often leading to deficiencies of both, but with a relative excess of Yang. Yin is considered cooling, calming and moistening, while Yang is considered heating, energising and drying. Consequently this type of imbalance often culminates in menopausal symptoms characterised by an excess of Heat (such as hot flushes and night sweats), agitation (such as insomnia, anxiety and nervous tension) and/or dryness (for example of the skin and vaginal tissue). Since the Kidney organ-meridian and Jing are also considered responsible for the health of the hair follicles and condition of the hair, many women also experience hair loss during menopause.
Natural remedies for menopause symptoms
Chinese herbs to balance Yin and Yang in menopause
When treating symptoms of menopause, Chinese herbalists often work with combinations of herbal medicines aimed at restoring Jing (Kidney energy), nourishing Yin (feminine energy), balancing Yang (male energy) and draining away excess Heat or Fire. For example, the cooling herb Anemarrhena has traditionally been used to nourish Kidney Yin and clear Heat, and is commonly taken to relieve menopause symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats, mild anxiety and irritability. It’s often taken in combination with other cooling herbs such as Pueraria (Kudzu), a natural source of phytoestrogens (isoflavones) that support hormone balance and bone health.
Black cohosh and Vitex help regulate the cycle and relieve hot flushes
The Western herbal medicines Black Cohosh and Vitex (Chaste Tree) may aid the management of menopausal and perimenopausal symptoms by helping to reduce menstrual irregularity and relieving symptoms such as hot flushes, vaginal dryness, headaches and insomnia.
Phytofol® helps manage menopausal hair loss
The Chinese herb Fallopia multiflora (Phytofol®) has long been used for many forms of hair loss, including the thinning of the hair that often occurs during and after menopause, and is traditionally understood to work by strengthening and replenishing Kidney essence (Jing). From a Western perspective its effects are believed to occur by prompting hair follicles in the resting phase of the hair growth cycle to return to the growth phase.
In women who are genetically susceptible to pattern hair loss, Phytofol® may also work by inhibiting the effects of androgen excess (specifically the hormone dihydrotestosterone, DHT) on the hair follicles.
Take extra calcium to support bone health and prevent osteoporosis
Women’s calcium requirements are increased after menopause, but unfortunately, many Australian women don’t obtain adequate calcium from their diets, increasing their risk of osteoporosis as they get older. Taking a calcium supplement may help strengthen your bones and maintain their density and mineral stores. As you get older, it may also help to prevent and/or treat osteoporosis and decrease your risk of experiencing a bone fracture. To support your body’s absorption and utilisation of the calcium in your supplement, choose a highly bioavailable formula containing an organic source of calcium (such as calcium glycinate) that also contains vitamin D to further enhance calcium absorption.
Diet and lifestyle recommendations for menopause
- TCM teaches us that symptoms caused by imbalances of Yin and Yang may be aggravated by stress or emotional upset. If you’re experiencing increased nervous tension, mild anxiety or mood problems, practices such as meditation or yoga may improve your ability to cope with stress and help restore feelings of being calm and in control
- Include legumes and seeds in your diet on a regular basis, prioritising soy foods (like tofu) and flaxseeds (also known as linseeds). They’re natural sources of phytoestrogens and may help you manage your menopause symptoms while also having long-term benefits for your cardiovascular health. In particular, soy foods are commonly consumed in the traditional diets of China and many other Asian countries and are widely attributed with helping to minimise women’s negative experiences of menopause in those regions
- Foods that are traditionally eaten to foster Yin energy in the body include staples such as rice, spinach, beetroot, carrots and sweet potatoes, ideally in warming, nourishing dishes such as soup, stew or congee (rice porridge). Small quantities of seafood, pork, eggs and duck are also recommended, but are best not eaten in excess
- Steer clear of spicy foods such as chillies, ginger, curry and warm beverages such as tea, because their heating properties may exacerbate hot flushes
- Women who exercise regularly experience fewer, less severe menopausal symptoms than women who don’t, so try to be active almost every day. Ideally, enjoy a mix of aerobic activities to support your heart health and weight-resistant activities to help prevent (Jogging or brisk walking are good choices as they incorporate both aerobic and weight-bearing components)
- Stop smoking if you haven’t already, as it hastens the arrival of menopause and adds to your heart disease and osteoporosis risk
- If you’re prone to hot flushes, dressing in natural fabrics such as cotton, linen, hemp and bamboo rather than synthetics may help you stay cool
When should you see your doctor or other health professional about menopausal symptoms?
- If you have a history of hormonally-induced health problems (including some forms of cancer) or are taking certain prescribed drugs, treatment with herbal medicines may not be suitable for Talk to your healthcare professional for more information
- Seek medical advice if you experience heavy or frequent menstrual bleeding or vaginal blood loss that occurs after intercourse, between periods (sometimes referred to as spotting) or after menopause has occurred
- You should also talk to your healthcare professional if you experience symptoms of menopause at a younger than normal age (e.g. less than 40 years)